Honoring Lily Eskelsen García: Because The Teachers Were Right

Jeff Bryant

In 2004, Democrats were enraged when Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, called teachers unions “terrorist organizations.”

According to accounts written at the time, Paige made the remark “in a private White House meeting with governors while answering a question about the National Education Association.” He was speaking “at length” about the implementation of the relatively new, back then, law called No Child Left Behind.

That law rolled out unfunded mandates for nationwide testing and unreachable “accountability” goals for the nation’s schools. At the time Paige made his remark, the NEA had said the law was “practically impossible to implement,” under-funded, and in need of more “flexibility” – criticisms today generally regarded as true.

Responding to the insult, Move On posted a petition, co-sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future, on its website that got millions of signatures demanding Paige resign – something that indeed eventually happened as controversy after controversy dogged the secretary.

CAF stood by the NEA then and is standing by it now in honoring NEA President Lily Eskelsen García as a progressive champion at tonight’s 2015 Awards Gala Celebrating America’s Future in Washington (click here for tickets).

Other honorees include Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Wallace Global Fund Co-Chair Scott Wallace, and the National People’s Network, a network of grassroots organizations running local campaigns to keep people and the planet first.

Honoring a teachers’ union leader – especially one as dynamic and outspoken as Eskelsen García – comes at a time when many prominent Democrats have become prone to criticize teacher organizations and question their progressive values.

When Democrats Turned Their Backs On Teachers

Liberal Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter has called teachers’ unions “Paleolithic.” In the union bashing documentary “Waiting for Superman,” Alter said they were “a menace.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has accused teachers’ unions of “protecting elements of a broken and unaccountable school system” and “turning a blind eye to a ‘separate but equal’ education system.” New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait has accused teachers’ unions of “turning against Democrats,” even though, obviously, the reverse is true. Left-leaning columnist Matt Bai has compared teachers’ unions to the National Rifle Association.

Throwing slights, even downright insults, at teachers and public schools, which have always been a feature of political rhetoric from Republicans, are increasingly common among Democrats.

Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called schools “public monopolies” that are in need of “real performance measures” like test-based evaluations and “competition” from charter schools. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has said teachers get their secure employment status, frequently called “tenure,” simply by showing up for work.

The 2012 Democratic convention opened with a pre-release screening of an anti-union drama “Won’t Back Down,” which depicts teachers as lazy and self-interested. Following the movie, a panel of prominent Democrats, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles mayor and convention chair, joined with former Washington, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee to praise the film.

What happened?

Democrats Went Adrift

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002, a regime of market competition from charters and standardized testing of school children has dominated the nation’s education policy.

The Obama administration intensified the obsession with testing and charter schools. President Obama’s Race to the Top grants and other incentives encouraged states to lift caps on charter schools and test students multiple times throughout the year.

Waivers created to help states avoid the consequences of NCLB encouraged charters and demanded even more testing for the purpose of evaluating educators and schools. The latest fad is to test four-year-olds for their “readiness” to attend kindergarten.

From the beginning of the testing craze, the NEA has been among the most vociferous in protesting market competition from charters and a test-driven approach to education improvement. After its initial warnings against NCLB went unheeded, NEA mustered a strong ground campaign against the law through a network of civil rights and policy groups. The union also filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the law, saying the lack of funding provided for implementing the mandates was illegal.

When it became evident the Obama administration would intensify the education policies of the Bush regime, the NEA openly split with Obama arguing the law relies too much on standardized tests, forces teachers to “teach to the test,” shortchanges anything other than math and English, and makes it too easy to cut off federal funds to public schools and shift the funding to charter schools.

Although the NEA has loyally given their endorsements to Obama in each of his presidential elections, the union had called for the resignation of Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan.

The Teachers Were Right

Now, there is ample evidence the teachers were right. As education professor David Kirp recently observed on Slate, “the cracks are showing” in “market-driven reform” that “makes teachers’ careers turn on student gains in reading and math tests, and promotes competition through charter schools … That’s a good thing because this isn’t a proven – or even a promising – way to make schools better.”

Kirp points to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute’s Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, which found that the policy mandate for test-based teacher evaluation, increased access to charter schools, and the closure of “failing” public schools did not boost at-risk students’ achievement and narrow race- and income-based achievement gaps. Based on an analysis of three large urban school districts – Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago – the report concluded, “The reforms deliver few benefits, often harm the students they purport to help, and divert attention from a set of other, less visible policies with more promise to weaken the link between poverty and low educational attainment.”

Aside from the research-based evidence that education mandates of the Bush administration haven’t worked, there is increasing evidence of an enormous populist uprising against the policy status quo.

The successful Chicago teacher strike of 2012 helped spur other successful teacher strikes in Portland, Oregon; St. Paul, Minnesota, and Seattle.

Parent organizing against education policy mandates – especially against the over-testing of students – is now rampant with collective actions taking place across the country. Boycotts of standardized tests, in particular, are becoming ubiquitous, most notably, in New York, where over 200,000 families across the state refused the tests last school year.

With Eskelsen García at its helm, NEA has perhaps its most outspoken critic of the status quo yet.

A Paragon Of Progressive Union Leadership

The daughter of a Panamanian mother and the granddaughter of a Mississippi sharecropper, Eskelsen García always knew education could open opportunities to a better life, and she became the first in her family to graduate from college, paying her way through the University of Utah with student loans, and by singing in bars and coffeehouses.

Eskelsen García started her education career volunteering in the cafeteria of a Utah elementary school. “When I say ‘lunch lady,’ I’m padding my résumé,” a Glamour Magazine profile quotes her. “I was a salad girl and worked my way up to hot food.”

That penchant for humor, often self-deprecating, is coupled with Eskelsen García’s fiery commitment to fairness and the dignity of children. As a volunteer in a kindergarten class, then eventually as a teacher, Eskelsen García cultivated her skills as a teacher – she would eventually be a Utah Teacher of the Year – with a deep awareness there was unfairness in our education system.

At the first school she taught – Orchard Valley Elementary in West Valley, Utah – she told the Glamour reporter, “I saw something that wasn’t fair – overcrowding in our classrooms. And I wanted to fix it.”

Her determination to “fix” injustices in our education system was a natural pathway into unionism. According to a report in The Washington Post, the same year Eskelsen García won Teacher of the Year, “the teachers’ union was dueling with the governor over school funding. The union held a rally in Salt Lake City and invited the Teacher of the Year to speak. García strummed her guitar and sang an original composition: ‘I’m-a-Teacher-and-I-Got-To-Work-In-Utah Blues.’ In short order, she was elected president of the Utah Education Association. She rose up the ranks and was propelled to the executive committee of the NEA in 1996.”

As NEA president, Eskelsen García continues her life-long campaign. In my Salon interview with Eskelsen García, shortly after the announcement of her becoming NEA president, she explains why current test-driven policies are unfair to students and teachers: “Using test scores is basically saying to educators, ‘Hit your number or you get punished.’ Or even worse, ‘Hit your number … if you’re an administrator, and we’ll give you a bunch of money.’ That would encourage the administrator to use a push-out program for low-scoring students like those who don’t speak English.”

She continues: “The testing is corrupting what it means to teach. I don’t celebrate when test scores go up … Sure, you can ‘light a fire’ and ‘find a way’ for scores to go up, but it’s a way through the kids that narrows their curriculum and strips their education of things like art and recess.”

Everything Progressive Starts With Education

Of course, battling for the rights of students is not every progressive’s favorite cause. And so far, education is a topic that is mostly absent from discussions in the current presidential primary race in the Democratic party.

But I’ll let Eskelsen García address that indifference: “People in the progressive movement have to realize that regardless of the particular fight they are engaged in, it starts with education. Whether you’re fighting for environmental causes, women’s rights, voting rights, all of these causes – and the very foundations of democracy and how our society makes decisions – start at a schoolhouse door.”

A few tickets to hear Eskelsen García and these other progressive champions are still available at Gala.OurFuture.org. Join us.

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